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Samurai: The Way of the Warrior

Full armor from the Muromachi period (ca. 1400), was made of iron, wood, brass, leather, silver and fur.

Full armor from the Muromachi period (ca. 1400), was made of iron, wood, brass, leather, silver and fur.

The legendary warriors of Japan have arrived at the Denver Art Museum in all their fierce glory. Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection, one of the most comprehensive in the world, opened on March 6, 2016, and will continue through June 5, 2016.

The traveling exhibition has previously been on view at such distinguished locations as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Musée de la Civilisation in Québec and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris - and now finally in Denver. 

The extensive collection has been selectively gathered by the Barbier-Muellers and their children over the past 25 years, and is permanently housed in their Dallas museum.

In exquisite detail, the stunning exhibition explores the life, culture and pageantry of the elite military class that served the nobility during the five feudal periods of the 12th through the 19th centuries. Who were they really? What was their job? How did they live? 

Samurai, “ones who serve,” were a social class like caste, and becoming a samurai was hereditary. They were fiercely loyal to their lords and followed a strict moral code of seven virtues that governed their lives, called bushido or the way of the warrior. 

Their story is told through 140 masterpieces, showcasing an era that most of us know little about. Most fascinating perhaps are the elaborate war regalia on display, including 20 full suits of armor, helmets, face guards, weapons, and weighty horse equipment.

Months of artistry and masterful craftsmanship went into creating a suit of armor. They were, in fact, works of art that served as symbols of protection, ceremony, prestige and status. Constructed of lacquered iron and leather plates connected by rivets and macramé cords, they covered the warrior from head to toe. Oddly enough, though, they supposedly were made to be flexible and allow free movement for the warrior.

The strangest and most convoluted part of the armor was the demonic kabuto helmet made of riveted metal plates that wrapped around the head, face and neck. Even while standing in front of such formidable armor, it’s hard to imagine they were actually once worn by a living, breathing samurai.

The suits were designed to terrify the enemy, and made the diminutive samurai—who averaged 5’2”-5’4”—seem larger than life when in the midst of battle. And of course, they were never without their famous iconic curved sword, called the katana. Given the armor’s weight, around 50 pounds, it’s amazing the wearer could move at all. 

The same could be said of the samurai’s horses, who were quite small in stature as well. Not only did they carry heavy saddles made of wood, leather armor and face masks, but also the samurai warrior in full armored regalia.

Wars raged from one feudal period to the next, starting with the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), which marked the emergence of the samurai and the establishment of feudalism in Japan. They continued through the Nanbokucho Period (1333-1392), Muromachi (1392-1573), Momoyama (1573-1615), and Edo (1615-1868). The Edo was known as the beginning of the early modern period of Japan, and ended with the restoration of imperial rule. It was also the end of nearly 700 years of the samurai era.

Now, that little-understood period is brought back to life in the Anschutz Gallery, and the museum has made sure guests will have an authentic and fun experience. The audio guide provides interesting facts and scenarios with atmospheric sound effects narrated, supposedly, by Tengu, a mythological Japanese trickster. For young viewers, the Just for Fun Family Center has been reimagined into a Japanese setting, replete with all manner of creative activities. 

if you go: Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Pkwy Denver CO 80204 720-864-5000 www.denverartmuseum.org